Doping study may improve drug testing in sport

19 August 2016

Research led by The Australian National University (ANU) could lead to new ways to detect performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics and other major sport events.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Malcolm McLeod from the ANU Research School of Chemistry said the research addressed a global challenge that undermined the integrity of sport and posed major health problems.

"Anabolic steroids and other banned drugs in sport may potentially improve an athlete's performance, but they can also be very dangerous and, in some cases, lethal," he said.  

Dr McLeod's team is engineering a bacterial enzyme that could help detect many banned drugs over longer timeframes, compared with current anti-doping tests.

"It's an enzyme from bacteria that is found in all sorts of environments which we've purified and studied, and we've received funding from the World Anti-doping Agency to improve its ability to test more drugs," Dr McLeod said.

"The improved enzyme could enable labs to detect doping for a longer period after an athlete takes a banned drug."

The enzyme interacts with a drug in a urine or blood sample, and works by cleaving off part of the drug to make it easier to analyse.

The researchers revealed their initial findings on the enzyme's potential anti-doping applications in a 2015 paper published in Drug Testing and Analysis.

Since this publication, Dr McLeod and his colleagues have changed the enzyme's structure enabling it to detect more banned substances.

"We're working with a biotechnology company in Chile to evaluate the improved enzymes and they have sent them to three analytical labs around the world," Dr McLeod said.

One of the laboratories conducts anti-doping tests for sporting events.

"We hope this enzyme will quickly become a powerful tool used by labs in the fight against doping in sport," Dr McLeod said.

The research has been funded by the Australian Government and the World Anti-doping Agency.